Whose lines are these, anyway?
January 7, 2013 § 4 Comments
My first post on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor (from way back before I took a Christmas vacation) focused on the nearly religious reverence I had for wit in high-school, and how it eventually faded as I grew up and ventured out into the real world. Wit requires a sense of comfort to conceive of, a sense of confidence to voice, and a bunch of shared connections to adequately communicate; as much as I valued these three things with my group of high school bro’s, I eventually needed to grow up and forge new connections.
So, as a socially anxious guy lost in all sorts of new situations, I started softening up to prepared jokes. Nervous in class and hanging on the wall at parties, zingers didn’t come to me a free and easy as they had in the back of R’s Festiva. And when they did, how could I be sure that whatever beautiful, intelligent young woman I was stuttering at would enjoy the esoteric self-deprecation that had just popped into my head? The carefully composed and considered joke is a safer bet, playing on more general commonalities.
Considering this and how we’d used wit to draw a line around our tight-nit group in high school, it is tempting to say that prepared jokes bring us together while wit divides us, but I think we’d, once again, be wrong to make such a general conclusion. Considering many common joke formulas, we can see that a sizable number of prepared jokes actually seek to reinforce the lines that divide us: the vast catalog of racist jokes, sexist jokes, and homophobic jokes only succeed if the teller and audience both feel they are on the same side of the line that divides themselves and the subject of the joke. For a less malicious example, there are certain jokes I only tell to foodies at work and others I’ll only bother sharing with my comic book friends; every joke has a particular audience, the group of people who will “get” it, and successfully sharing a joke confirms that both teller and listener are part of that group.
In telling even our most common and harmless jokes, we seek, at the very least, to confirm our common understanding of what it means to be human. As inclusive as this seems, you can easily imagine an alien or a cyborg feeling left out as a group of humans convulse with laughter over a seeming triviality—especially if you’ve ever overheard a joke told in a foreign tongue and sat silent through everyone else’s joyous reaction.
So, like wit, jokes rely on social connections and exclusions, but a distinction exists between the two, I believe, in whether or not the lines they are playing on already exist. A written joke draws on an existing line; people prepare themselves for a social situation by capitalizing on what they know:
I don’t know any of these guys at my brother-in-law’s poker game, but since we’re all guys, I can assume we’ll all agree blonde women are of below average intelligence.
This such a diverse gathering of people, I’m afraid that anything I might say will offend someone’s political or religious beliefs. But since we’re all Minnesotans, here, I think it’s safe for me to claim that Iowans are of below average intelligence.
The preponderance of people searching the internet for specific jokes—about walnuts or hammocks—is proof of this; it is nice to come into a unsure social situation with a remark that will prove we are already part of the group.
Wit, in contrast, is less concerned with reinforcing existing social lines than in building new connections. When we stray off the script and take a risk on a witty comment, we’re gambling that there is a more particular and personal connection between ourselves and our conversation partner than whatever societal connections might have brought us together. Successful reparte is proof two people aren’t just connected by their circumstances, but by their individual intelligence as well, making great leaps together instead of following the prescribed steps of a rote dance.
If a prepared joke is like a speech, then wit is like a conversation. Wit’s natural habitat, in fact, seems to be the conversation, and those that stand out as witty are the sorts of people who are good enough listeners to incorporate what others have said into a fresh comment, the ultimate example being that serendipitous remark that brings a conversation “full-circle” and makes everyone involved feel included—and lucky to have been.
But with that, I feel I’m once again raising wit up as a joy far above and beyond the written joke—so I’ll dedicate the next week’s post in this continuing series to the subject of why one can’t exist without the other.